12 Aug, 2009

‘Rabbit hutch Britain’ not a new phenomenon

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Private house builders have been marketing Lilliputian homes to the less well-off for decades, despite much complaint

It’s August. It’s the silly season. And, as if to prove the point, here’s a survey showing that rooms in newly built private housing aren’t big enough to swing a length of spaghetti, much less the proverbial cat. As a result, says the government’s architecture quango, the commission for architecture and the built environment (CABE), such housing should not be considered “fit for purpose”.

But, the nextdoor neighbour’s cat, dog or guinea-pig could have told CABE, the government, and you and me, this donkey’s years ago. “Rabbit hutch Britain” is hardly a new phenomenon. The poor and less-well off have been living in the equivalent of rabbit hutches for as long as Britain has been named. Clay and wattle huts might have given way over the centuries to brick and mortar, timber and tiles, concrete and cracks, yet our busy islands have long been home to miserable housing.

If British housing became famously dismal during the Industrial Revolution, with its prodigious terraces of back-to-backs and legendary “Dickensian” slums in London and other teaming cities, the problem was almost solved, for a brief while, by a number of rational and big-hearted initiatives by public bodies in the 20th century. There were, for example, the very fine Arts & Crafts council estates built by the London county council in two decades before the first world war, the 1937 council for art and industry report – The Working Class Home – written under the chairmanship of Frank Pick, chief executive of the London Passenger Transport Board, and the Parker Morris report – Home for Today and Tomorrow – of 1961.

The 1961 report led to the setting up of Parker Morris Standards by the Ministry of Housing, guaranteeing decent-sized, if not always well-built, flats and homes for council residents. While Parker Morris Standards were recognised by the private sector, they were not mandatory. And, despite much complaint over the past 50 years, many private house builders have built Lilliputian homes for an ever-growing population – in numbers as well as body mass. We are bigger today than we were in 1961.

Equally, we own many more objects. The British economy is driven by feckless, and reckless, consumerism. We are encouraged to buy more and more stuff – including cheap clothes, cheap furniture, cheap food and cheap electronic gizmos – and governments encourage us to do so to keep the wheels of the economy turning. As a result, we need bigger and bigger homes. What we get, though, are smaller homes.

Private house builders have been clever at marketing the image of “traditional” British homes to people with precious little money to spare while building houses that are as every bit as mass-produced as a Model T Ford – and slightly less sophisticated today than a Model T was a century ago. People put their hard-earned savings, or borrowings, into an illusion of tradition. What most are buying are, indeed, “rabbit hutches”. And, until we rethink the way we wish to live, consume and raise our families, “rabbit hutch housing” will continue to spread like … rabbits.

Idealism in the design of mass housing went out with the triumph of neo-liberal economics 30 years ago. People might not get what they deserve, but they certainly get what the market thinks they’ll accept and be able to afford. Parker Morris Standards, meanwhile, and the decent common-sense humanity of the likes of the erstwhile London county council and council for art and industry, are as meaningful today as ancient Sumerian scripts buried in desert sands. The “rabbit hutch” has yet to meet its architectural, or planning law, myxomatosis.

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